In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The gospels don’t make clear what Jesus thought he was doing when he went up to Jerusalem in the last week of his earthly life. John’s Gospel suggests that Jesus had a master plan from God and knew exactly what was going to happen, but the other gospels are more ambiguous. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, which seems to signify peaceful intentions. Does he think, as many of his followers apparently did, that God would use this moment to sweep away the current power structure and bring in God’s kingdom? When Jesus makes his prophetic assault on the temple, does he anticipate that it will inspire the ruling elite to plot his death? It’s hard to know.
If we step back a moment and contemplate what actually happens in the days leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, it looks a lot like utter chaos. Picture the scene: Jerusalem is packed with the faithful come to celebrate Passover, Pilate and the Romans are nervous about popular unrest, and Jewish leaders are nervous about the Romans’ tendency to use violence to solve problems.
Enter Jesus: he’s initially hailed by many as a powerful prophet but within days is scorned as a pathetic fraud by the Passover crowd. He hides outside of town to avoid the authorities, only to be betrayed by one of his closest lieutenants. Jewish leaders scramble to find a way to get rid of this troublemaker in order to protect the city. Pilate is uncertain who this man is, initially quarrels with Jewish leaders about what to do, but finally gives in to their demands just to be on the safe side. Jesus’s followers, confused and fearful, don’t understand why things are unfolding as they are.
Experts on the human mind tell us – as if we really needed to be told – that we humans, for all our intelligence and rational capacity, are really terrible at predicting the future, of seeing what’s going to happen, even though we often think we’re good at it.
Think back to this time a year ago: I thought, well, there’s a new virus, it’s problematic, we’ll shut things down for a few weeks, maybe a month or so, then things will get better.
Did any of you anticipate – I certainly did not – that in a year’s time a half million of our fellow Americans would have died of the virus, that tens of millions of people would have lost their jobs and businesses, that schools would be mostly shut down for a year, that wearing or not wearing face masks would become a political issue, that we would now be busily trying to vaccinate the entire population against the new virus, or that thousands of Americans would have physically stormed the U.S. Capitol trying to overturn a national election? It’s almost like a script for a science fiction movie. And yet, here we are.
Paul, in the Letter to the Philippians, writes that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, … emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (2:5-7) In other words, he wasn’t like one of the Greek gods with supernatural powers who could appear in human form; he was truly and completely human, subject to all of the weaknesses of humans, including doubt, pain and mortality. And, I would say, unable to accurately predict the future.
When I think of Jesus on that donkey entering Jerusalem about to face the Passover crowds, the nervous Roman authorities, the city leaders who just want to maintain the peace, I think he couldn’t have known what was going to happen. To my mind, it’s the moment at which he is most human, most like us, not being able to see the future but still holding on to what he knows is God’s call to him, set on the actions he feels compelled to take, no matter what. Like his friends and followers, he is determined and hopeful – but the future is unknown territory.
When I retired from teaching a couple of years ago, I didn’t have a very clear idea what retirement would look like for me. I did have some modest plans: I was going to do some volunteering, I was going to take some classes, I was going to continue to be engaged with folks at church, I was going to do some traveling with my wife, spend time with my kids. I was hopeful everything would fall into place.
HA! There’s a Yiddish saying that I love: “Mann tracht un Gott lacht.” Man plans and God laughs. Or if you prefer a Scottish version, courtesy of Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”
Man, have my plans “gang aft agley.” There have been moments this past year when my life, and the lives of so many others, have seemed like utter chaos: things happening over which we had no control, little choice, events that threatened not just our plans but our work, our education, our families, our very lives. Our streets and our civil life in turmoil. My anxiety has sometimes frozen me in place. Perhaps yours has as well. We have asked ourselves questions: What is the path forward? How can we make it? How do we get out of this? What’s next? Why?
By the end of that chaotic week in Jerusalem, it’s easy to sense the despair in Jesus’ friends, as whatever hopes they had, have been buried in the tomb with their leader. But then at the dawn of a new week, they rediscover hope in the empty tomb. Now they can begin to look back and to reframe the terrible events of the week. Now they can begin to make meaning out of them. To find a new purpose. They still don’t know what lies ahead, but they know just enough to move forward.
In a sense, this is what we do every Holy Week as we retrace the events of Jesus’ last days in our worship together. We take the chaos of these events and use them all – the fear and suffering and pain and despair and then the vision of Jesus alive again – all of it, to make meaning. And we can use this week as a template for our own lives and experience, to take the chaos and suffering we have experienced and, through the lens of Holy Week, rediscover meaning and purpose for ourselves. And we can do that because the paradox of the Cross is that it is not the final word but actually the sign of God’s promise to transform suffering and death into new life and new hope.
Jesus’s death scatters his friends into hiding, until they receive the call to come together again, to return to Galilee, to find new community and new purpose together.
When we are able to emerge from our own hiding, to come back together as a community, we don’t know what that will look like. Like the disciples, we will discover that it’s not just a return to our old lives, but an invitation to transformation, to move forward on new roads, new ways of worshipping and being in community, to new ministries and ways of serving God and God’s people.
The Reverend Richard Schaper studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.
He also studied philosophy and religion at Colgate University, theology at the University of Chicago, ethics at Yale University, financial planning at Golden Gate University and the management of nonprofit organizations at the University of San Francisco.
Growing up Lutheran, then worshipping with Quakers and zazen training with Zenki Shibayama Roshi prepared him for nine years as a Benedictine monk at Weston Priory.
Richard’s experiences as a monk, hospital chaplain, parish pastor, and certified financial planner have prepared him for a pastoral and spiritual perspective in financial and estate planning.
His wife, the Reverend Anita Ostrom, PhD., is a psychotherapist.
Richard comes from a seafaring family and enjoys fishing and sailing.
Are there times when God’s anger is good news?
I realise that this is a dangerous question. More than one person at our virtual service this morning grew up in a religiously abusive environment. In such a context there is very little good news about an angry God. Here is the god who looks at you and, like a drunken and abusive dad home from a bender, finds you perpetually wanting and screams your inadequacies at you. And I realise as well that, just floating around in our culture, there is a picture of God’s anger in which God is always ready to rain lightning strikes down on people who have failed to love him enough.
So, let me be clear: that isn’t what God is like. 1John is right when it tells us that God is love. God loves you beyond limit and beyond measure. And, more than that, that isn’t what I mean by the anger of God.
What I mean by God’s anger is what we witness today as we watch Jesus in the temple.
As Jesus makes a whip and chases people around, as he flips over tables, is this good news? Or, if we prefer, because this is the Gospel – in English, good news – and I reckon that our ancestors got that name right, how is Jesus’ anger good news? How is it good news for the people visiting the temple? And, maybe this second question is harder, how is it good news for the merchants selling doves and sheep and for the moneychangers?
How is Jesus’ anger evidence that God is love?
I’m going to invite you to cast your mind back – maybe to your childhood, maybe to a more recent time – and see if you can remember an occasion in which someone became angry on your behalf. Maybe you got ripped off by a neighbourhood kid or by a neighbourhood merchant. Maybe a teacher was cruel to you. Maybe you were the victim of a still more serious injustice. And someone who loved you and wanted the best for you blew their stack. They got red in the face, maybe even spit flew out of their mouths (this was before masks and physical distancing made that sort of thing impossible) and they told the person who had hurt you a thing or two.
What was that like? What did that feel like?
There are a lot of ways that a loving parent tells us that they love us. And one of them is this kind of anger. When you witness this anger you say, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain.
And that’s what Jesus does on behalf of the poor people coming to the temple today. He blows his stack at the folks who are getting rich by selling stuff to them at a criminal markup.
Now, I need to stop here and inert a kind of footnote. There is a long and disastrous history of reading this story through the lens of antisemitism, so that this story and ones like it are, somehow, Jesus versus the Jews. No! No, Jesus is Jewish, the people getting ripped off are Jewish, the people doing the ripping off are Jewish. This is an argument within a family. If it’s helpful, imagine Jesus as a faithful and committed Episcopalian, someone who has no intention of leaving the Episcopal church now or ever, let alone starting a new religions. And Jesus runs amok in an Episcopal church gift shop that has been ripping off other Episcopalians. (I don’t know if that analogy totally works, but it’s the best that I’ve got.)
If the poor people in Jesus’ time were anything like the poor people of today, they were ripped off all the time. In a funny way, they were almost used to being ripped off. I knew a guy in Spokane who was being treated in a totally unfair way by his landlord. And he said: My landlord is rich, I’m not. My landlord has a lawyer, I don’t. There’s nothing I can do.
And maybe the poor folks coming to the temple say the same thing. Maybe they say: We’re going to get hosed trading money. We’re going to get hosed even more buying our sacrifice for the temple. There’s nothing we can do.
But then Jesus loses his temper on their behalf. And maybe they feel something similar to what you felt in that memory that I invited you to examine a minute ago. Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like Jesus is hurt. My pain is his pain.
Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper on their behalf is God.
This is good news.
But what about the merchants? What about the money changers? Surely this is nothing but bad news for them – they were having a good day, a god week, a good fiscal quarter. And suddenly their coins and running in the gutters and some dude is sending their tables airborne.
Again, I’ll invite you to cast your mind back. See if you can remember a time when someone loved you so much that they lost their temper with you. Maybe this was a teacher who knew that you were not trying anywhere near your best. Maybe this was a neighbour who discovered you stealing something. Maybe this was a friend or a partner who named your selfishness in unvarnished terms.
What was that like?
Well, if you are anything like me, it was no fun at all. If you are anything like me, you may have resented that anger. Maybe you sulked, maybe you retreated into silence, maybe you became angry yourself.
It is only with time that you came to say, Gosh, I really needed to hear that. It’s because of that anger that I started trying and I got into college; it’s because of that anger that my conscience grew a couple of sizes larger; it’s because of that anger that I realised that I was being selfish and that I wanted to do better.
And maybe with time you said, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain. The love me enough to blow my stack.
Because when we make a mistake, when we fall short of the mark, when we sin, what is frequently the behaviour of someone who doesn’t love us? Sometimes they will get angry. But as often as not, they will shrug. I was just listening to a popular song, the words of which contain ancient wisdom, wisdom that Jesus new:
The opposite of love is indifference.
Now, like you and me, I suspect that the merchants and the money changers don’t experience this moment as love, especially if Jesus’ whip gets anywhere near their behinds. But maybe, after a while, they too will say, You know what? That was the day that changed my life. That was the day that I understood that I wanted to be someone else. Someone kinder and more loving.
And they will remember and say Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like he is hurt. My pain is his pain. Jesus loves me enough to blow his stack.
Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper with them is God.
This is good news.
So. When you suffer injustice, know that Jesus is angry on your behalf. That Jesus will flip over tables for you. And when you hurt another person or hurt the world, know that Jesus loves you so much that Jesus will get red in the face and tell you the unvarnished truth. In both cases, Jesus’ love for you is fierce and abiding and huge. It is a love that will lead you into life.
This is good news.
The name Sarah, or its previous iteration of Sarai, appears more frequently in the Bible than that of any other woman, 55 times in the Old Testament and 4 times in the New according to the womanist Hebrew Bible scholar Wil Gafney. Granted, the list of women with names in the Bible is a pretty short one, but this points to the significance of Sarah in the story of God’s people.
Despite her importance in the narrative and her role as the matriarch of the people of Israel, I know I tend to only think of her as a supporting player in the stories of others – in the wanderings of Abraham, in the abuse and exile of Hagar and Ishmael, in the birth of Isaac.
But in today’s reading from Genesis God points to Sarah by name as being blessed by God (twice in fact, God repeats the words “I will bless her” two times) and that “she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Of course this proclamation is not spoken directly to Sarahm but to her husband Abraham, and I wonder how much he might have told her about his conversation with God. After all, Abraham does not have a good track record of treating her well or protecting her. Abraham is her husband, but also her brother, and he switches between those roles throughout the narrative depending on what best suits him and protects him. This happens most famously in the chapters before this one, as Abram and Sarai travel through Egypt and Abram travels as Sarai’s brother and gives her, traffics her in the word of one Biblical commentator, to Pharaoh in order to secure his own safety and wealth.
Interestingly, at the conclusion of that part of the story, when Pharoah realizes he has slept with Abram’s wife, it is God who is furious and punishes Pharoah (the text says that God afflicted him with ‘great plagues’) and not Abram himself. God seems to be more aware and present to Sarai’s trauma than her husband.
Another source of Sarah’s pain, I might suggest, comes from being unable to bear children. During this time and this culture, being childless would be one of the worst shames for a woman, who was (at least in the Bible) always considered the one to blame….the metaphor being a barren field rather than unfruitful seed. But in today’s reading God announces that Sarah and Abraham, despite their very advanced age and inability thus far to have children, will indeed bear a son and this son will be the sign of God’s covenant and promise and hope.
God has articulated this covenant three times before to Abraham, but this is the first time God names Sarah in God’s promise. Right after the passage we heard this morning, Abraham suggests that God might consider Ishmael – his child with Hagar – as heir instead. Abraham sees a child being born by Sarah as a ridiculous impossibility given their age and Abraham tries to point God toward a more realistic and achievable plan.
But God names Sarah. As in their journey through Egypt, God is there for Sarah even when Abraham is not. In Egypt God saw Sarah’s pain even when her husband did not, God stays in relationship with Sarah even when her husband offers God an easier alternative, God promises life to Sarah even after she has suffered so much pain even at the hands of her own husband.
This is not just a story of the way God stays in relationship with Sarah through pain and trauma, but the story of how God stayed in relationship with the people of Judah during a violent and traumatic time in their history. (and with all of us). One scholar suggests that we might read the Book of Genesis as ‘survival literature”, written by the people of Judah in the time of the violence and trauma of the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. Many of the stories of the Book of Genesis, including the ones of Sarah and Abraham, were likely written during this period, known as the “Babylonian Captivity”, when the center of Jewish life and worship was destroyed by the Chaldeans led by Nebuchadnezzar, the monarchy was killed, and many were deported to live in exile in Babylon.
Through these stories, through characters like Sarah, the Jewish people tried to make sense of what was happening to them and where God was in the aftermath of the unimaginable. God meets Sarah in the midst of her trauma and abuse – of being childless and married to her brother and trafficked to Pharaoh – and renames her and reiterates God’s promise to HER – that life will be created in HER body, that she will be the mother of a new nation. God does not take away her pain or her past but meets her in it and creates the possibilities of new meaning and new life from that pain and loss.
I, for one, need to hear these stories right now, in this time and in this Lent. One year ago today, this very day, the first case of Covid was announced in Oregon and recently we have passed the unimaginable number of 500,000 deaths. There has been a renewed reckoning with the violence done to black and brown bodies through the systems of white supremacy and the state. And many of us, I know, have our own stories of particular grief and loss throughout this year.
Yet, just as God was with Sarah, God is with us, offering a horizon of hope. These stories were written millenia ago to help our ancestors of the faith make sense of a hard time. I think they invite us to similarly tell our stories, to share our pain, with each other and with God, so that we too might see how God is with us and is calling to us by name. Last Wednesday, I had the privilege to help lead the first in our Lenten series from grief to joy, 28 people came together to learn about lament and to name their own particular laments in this time. It was a holy time and a holy space
I think by telling our stories of pain and grief, by listening to the stories of others, we meet God in a powerful way. God met Sarah in the most painful part of her story, in her childness and in her marriage to Abraham, and offered a relationship and the possibility of new life. God did not take away the pain of her past but rather offered a new way to make sense of it through relationship with God.
The first hymn we heard this morning was “The God of Abraham Praise” and it is one of my favorite hymns, but I do think we have too long given short shrift to Sarah….a complicated and brave and really human character. God named Sarah, God was with Sarah in her pain and trauma, God made an impossible promise to her and God was with her when that promise was fulfilled. So yes, let us praise the God of Abraham, but let us also praise the God of Leah, the God of Rebekah, the God of, Hagar and the God of Sarah and the God of all those whose stories of survival and hope speak to us still. Let us praise the God who was there with them and is here with us now and will always be with us forever.